What is Dictionary Attack
Updated on 27th Jun, 22 22 Views

The following topics are covered in this blog:

Before starting with the meaning of ‘Dictionary Attack’, let us first understand what are ‘Brute-force attacks’ because dictionary attacks fall under the category of these types of attacks.

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What are Brute-force attacks?

Brute-force attacks are types of attacks where the hacker or cyber-criminal executes a trial-and-error method to identify the passwords of a computer or network system to gain access. In the majority of cases, these attackers use automated software to perform hit-and-trial on a large number of possible combinations.

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What is a Dictionary Attack?

We have already discussed in the above section about Brute-force attacks so that understanding ‘Dictionary attacks’ becomes easy. So, a dictionary attack is nothing but a form of brute-force attack where the attacker uses common and easily identifiable words plus phrases from a dictionary to crack passwords and personal identification numbers (PINs). It is common to see that people keep simple combinations and easy-to-remember passwords. This helps attackers to carry out dictionary attacks easily as cracking easier passwords does not take time for these trained dictionary attackers.

But dictionary attack attempts may tend to fail where users have a complex set of passwords and not just names of family members or self as their passwords. The chances of dictionary attacks can be rare in situations where businesses have the policy of practicing precautionary measures such as regularly changing passwords, Two-Factor authentications, etc. These days, even though dictionary attacks are getting sophisticated, it is possible to prevent them by using passwords having both uppercase and lowercase letters along with special characters and random combinations.

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Working of Dictionary Attacks

The working of a dictionary attack is solely dependent on assumptions. A dictionary attack bases its judgment based on some of the common preselected libraries of phrases and possible passwords such as ‘pass123’, ‘1234’, and ‘p1234’ etc. Hackers sometimes also use demographic trends and lifestyle trends to assume the right password or PIN. For example- a youth residing in Spain or any other European country may have a password like ‘messi123’ or ‘foot1234ball’ etc. Similarly, if a hacker is trying to break into the computer system of the operations department of a company, the assumed password can be ‘ops1234’ or ‘opspass1234’ etc. The list of predictable passwords is long enough for dictionary attackers to perform hit-and-trial. This is why attackers use automated software and mechanisms to avoid manual hits and trials.

Now, if the list of pre-assumed passwords is short enough, the attack has a high chance of being carried out smoothly, and that too in a short period of time. However, if the list is long enough, the chances of having successful attempts become less, if not completely zero.

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Effects of Dictionary Attacks

The effects of dictionary attacks are numerous and no less than any other cyber attack. It can lead to data loss or damage to the computer and network systems too. Dictionary attacks tend to steal confidential data and information. By cracking the system password and PIN, they leave the computer and network systems vulnerable to more dictionary attacks in the future. This is because, once the password is hacked, the attackers get the idea of password trends for the particular system. Hence, they do not require to put much effort in the future to break into the system. One of the famous examples of dictionary attacks is the ‘Solar Winds data breach case’ where some of the Russian dictionary hackers were able to crack open the administrator password of Solar Winds. After cracking the password, the attackers planted a backdoor, which was activated when the employees of the organization using the systems upgraded the software. However, in this case, there was a lack of proper preventive measures by Solar Wind. The password – ‘solarwind123’ had weak security and was hence compromised and easily guessed by the attackers.

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Precautionary measures to handle Dictionary attacks

When the attackers are experienced and professionally trained, it becomes easier to crack the passwords. Nobody has control over that as these dictionary attackers use automated software to check all the possible password combinations. But we do have control over the security and degree of complexity of the passwords. It is also required to follow certain suggested precautionary measures to prevent and fight dictionary and brute-force attacks. These are:

  • It is always suggested to use a strong and complex password that proves to be difficult for attackers to decode. A random combination of special characters, uppercase, and lowercase letters is hard to guess. Even though it is not difficult to crack, keeping complex passwords can help fight maximum dictionary attack attempts.
  • Another important preventive measure is avoiding repetitive logging in. Each time while logging back into the system, there is a waiting time of 1/10th fraction of a second. Even though it might look less, it is sufficient enough for dictionary attackers to break into the system. Hence, the best practice for preventing dictionary attacks is to avoid unnecessary repetitive logins.
  • Using captchas in case you have failed multiple times to log in to your computer systems is an important measure to prevent dictionary attacks. These days, the use of captchas is highly recommended as it requires manual inputs which helps in preventing attack attempts as an unauthorized entry becomes very difficult. As per reports, the dictionary attacks have reduced in cases where forceful captchas are used to allow the user to log in. 
  • The self-locking feature helps a lot in mitigating the loss caused by dictionary attacks. Configuring systems to self-lock in case of multiple failed sign-in attempts is one of the most effective measures to tackle dictionary attacks. When a system self-locks itself, there is no room left for dictionary attackers to execute the attack. One such example of a self-locking system is that of an iOS system where an iPhone locks itself completely and erases all data after 10 unsuccessful tries.
  • Regularly refreshing passwords is very important to maintain password security. These days, computer and network systems are pre-configured to regularly remind the users to update their passwords. All systems have a set interval in which the passwords need to be changed. In fact, the corporate accounts and systems have 30 days or even lesser time intervals such as 15 days. In the event of not refreshing the passwords, the users might also be signed out automatically by the system. Hence refreshing passwords is very crucial. One thing that needs to be noted here is that each time you refresh the password, it should be unique and complex, even though you are in a hurry.

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From this blog, we have tried to explain how dictionary attacks can exploit your weak passwords and PINs to harm your systems and steal confidential and important data. Cyber attacks are only increasing and hence we must be prepared at every step to prevent these attacks. The first step to preventing dictionary attacks starts by keeping complex passwords for maximum protection of your computer and network systems. In this blog, we have also learned which precautionary measures to take. Hence, we hope it will help you with the required knowledge to secure your systems through high-security complex passwords.

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